Phillis Wheatley: Poems

Style, structure, and influences on poetry

Wheatley believed that the power of poetry is immeasurable.[23] John C. Shields notes that her poetry did not simply reflect novels which she read but was based on her personal ideas and beliefs. Shields writes, "Wheatley had more in mind than simple conformity. It will be shown later that her allusions to the sun god and to the goddess of the morn, always appearing as they do here in close association with her quest for poetic inspiration, are of central importance to her." For example, her poem “Ode to Neptune” signifies her life in many ways. The language of the poem starts out shaky and chaotic but the mood is adventurous yet scary (reflecting much of her life experiences). By the end of the poem the language and attitude seems to generate an emotion of a calm peaceful journey that served of great importance. This poem is arranged into three stanzas of four lines in iambic tetrameter followed by a concluding couplet in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is ababcc."[23][24] Her structure or form of the poetry expressed the tone.

She used three primary elements: Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship.[25] The hierophantic solar worship is what she brought with her from Africa; the worship of sun gods is expressed as part of her African culture. As her parents were sun worshipers, it may be why she used so many different words for the sun. For instance, she uses Aurora eight times, "Apollo seven, Phoebus twelve, and Sol twice."[25] Shields believes that the word "light" is significant to her as it marks her African history, a past which she has left physically behind.[25]

He notes that Sun is a homonym for Son, and that Wheatley intended a double reference to Christ.[25] Wheatley also refers to "heav'nly muse" in two of her poems: "To a Clergy Man on the Death of his Lady" and "Isaiah LXIII," signifying her idea of the Christian deity.[26]

Shields believes that her use of classicism set her work apart from that of her contemporaries. He writes, "Wheatley’s use of classicism distinguishes her work as original and unique and deserves extended treatment."[27] Shields sums up Wheatley’s writing by characterizing it as "contemplative and reflective rather than brilliant and shimmering."[24]

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